Funeral Music: virtue is in the middle


As November 2nd approaches, I have been preparing for my favorite liturgy of the year: the Solemn Requiem for All Souls. A big part of why I love it so much is because I get to sing what I will argue is the most powerful piece of liturgical music ever written, the Dies Irae. In addition to sounding positively heart-stopping, the lyrics are so solemn and convicting. Take this excerpt for example:
Then shall with universal dread/ the Book of Consciences be read/ to judge the lives of all the dead.
For now before the Judge severe/ all hidden things must plain appear/ no crime can pass unpunished here.
O King of dreadful majesty!/ grace and mercy You grant free;/ as Fount of Kindness, save me!
It fills you with such a sense of dread and awe! You can't help but leave that Mass with an acute awareness of your own mortality and need for conversion and mercy.

Contrast that with the sentiment at most modern funerals. Its not unusual to leave feeling more like you attended a beatification than an occasion to pray for a departed soul. And it certainly doesn't help when all the songs you hear are focused on how the departed is now "soaring on eagle's wings..."

Aristotle (look at me being all smart) says that virtue lies in the middle. While I instinctively gravitate towards all things Gregorian, I think it applies here very well. Yes, the primary purpose of a funeral is to pray for the deceased and beg God's mercy for them, but in addition there is absolutely a need for bereavement of the family and friends left behind. Another consideration that should be made is the fact that funerals are probably one of the few times many people will set foot in a Catholic Church, and nothing but chant can get a little intimidating to the casual passerby.

We should absolutely be comforted and filled with hope at a funeral. God's mercy is abundant! But it would be negligent of us to presume our loved ones are automatically in heaven and have no need of our prayers.

A wiser person than me (my dad, actually) found what I think is an excellent solution: singing the Requiem Propers. He gave me a very nice English translation of them too. These are specific musical pieces for the Entrance, what would be the Psalm in the new rite, the Offertory, and Communion. Sadly, there isn't a place for the Dies Irae in the new rite, but at my funeral, I am requesting it as a prelude or something. It leaves some places where a favorite hymn or two can be played, so the music as a whole still fulfills the purpose of commending the soul of the departed to God and providing comfort to the family and friends.

It is fairly common to hear the In Paradisum at a funeral. Sometimes it sounds suspiciously like Danny Boy, but what can you do... But that is just an aside. My point being that this isn't a crazy idea, it is fairly common, and should just be expanded.

I have a lot more to say about singing the Propers at every liturgy rather than depending on what my boss calls the "Four Hymn Sandwich", but I need to so some more research first. For now, I leave you with this proposition: singing some of the Propers of the Mass for a funeral is a more perfect way to pray for the souls of our faithful departed.

Copyright Hilary Thompson (2017) all rights reserved
AMDG

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